Canon lawyer: Human connections are 'most important' aspect of safeguarding conference

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Canon lawyer: Human connections are 'most important' aspect of safeguarding conference

By Heather Walker

ROME — Lay Centre alumna Susan Mulheron said a recent conference in Rome provided an opportunity for people working in safeguarding to network, share their expertise and make concrete recommendations on how to improve procedures in preventing and reporting abuse in the Church.

The Pontifical Gregorian University’s International Safeguarding Conference gathered canon lawyers, psychologists and other professionals June 20-22 to discuss issues related to reporting abuse and how they are handled in different contexts. The conference theme was “Reporting Abuse: Obligations, Dilemmas and Reality.”

Dr. Mulheron was among the participants. The canon lawyer serves as the chancellor for canonical affairs for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis in the United States. She also serves as canonical adviser on sexual abuse and clergy misconduct issues in the Church at the local, regional and national levels. 

Mulheron said prior to the June conference, she had participated in a 15-member North American working group that met in a series of 3-hour online meetings dedicated to discussing the focus areas of the Rome conference.

“It was an interdisciplinary collaboration, an opportunity to share expertise with each other,” Mulheron explained. “The working groups were focused on coming up with very practical suggestions and concrete recommendations that could be passed on to the Holy See and others working at very high levels in safeguarding.”

The groups passed on their conclusions to Father Hans Zollner, SJ, who heads the Gregorian’s Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care and is one of the leading experts on safeguarding and prevention of sexual abuse.

When Mulheron was invited to attend the conference, she was eager to participate for a number of reasons.

“I wanted to continue that collaboration and the conversations, especially with people outside of the American context,” said Mulheron. “I wanted to be able to network and expand my pool of people that I can connect with and get advice from.”

The first part of the conference was focused on the motu proprio issued by Pope Francis in May 2019, “Vos estis lux mundi,” which outlines “procedures [to] be universally adopted” in the Church “to prevent or combat” the “crimes of sexual abuse.”

Participants discussed how “the document is designed to work, where is it working well and where it is not working well,” said Mulheron.

She said “Vos estis lux mundi” is in the process of being revised and conference participants had the opportunity to recommend revisions as practitioners for the past three years.

“I am always thinking about these things from the canon law perspective,” she said, and the conference provided opportunities to have many “good conversations with people about how canon law fits into this whole process.”

She rated the conference a success for its content, process and opportunity to speak with others working in safeguarding from other countries.

“You realize that we have the exact same problems,” she said. “They are at different levels of being addressed on a systemic level, but every country has the same fundamental problems and is trying to come up with solutions.”

“I met so many amazing people who have incredible insights about working with victim survivors that now I know I can reach out to them,” she added. “The human connections I was able to make were probably the most important aspect of the conference. You gain resources, but also make friends and in this type of work you always need that web of friendship and support.”

Mulheron said while she works with a “great team” at her archdiocese, an official and professional support network for those who work in safeguarding does not yet exist. She said conference participants discussed the question of support and proposed having a mini-retreat, either before or after the next conference, especially related to secondary trauma.

Mulheron added she was impressed by the students at the conference enrolled in the Gregorian’s diploma in safeguarding program, who have been charged by their bishops to set up safeguarding programs in their dioceses and the ways they are handling their challenges.

Three Mexican women, who were Lay Centre residents this past semester, Maria Guadalupe Gonzalez de Costilla, Aida Aguirre Alonoso and Diana Fabiola Hernandez Guevara, were among the diploma students at the conference. Mulheron left with the impression that the diploma program prepares people well for their work ahead.

Mulheron also met up with another Lay Centre alumna at the conference, Claudia Giampietro, a canon lawyer who works as the project officer at the Office of Care and Safeguarding of the International Union of Superiors General, an organization of about 2,000 women religious leaders.

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